Waiting at one of Hangzhou's railway stations (Shanghai Daily)

It’s that time of the year again. The world’s largest human migration takes place in China every winter – and it keeps getting bigger. During this year’s Lunar New Year Festival, the Chinese will take 2.56 billion passenger trips to return home – an 11.6 percent increase from last year, according to the Ministry of Transport. Just 10 years ago, the number was 1.66 billion.

Even though this annual event, also known as the Spring Festival, starts on February 3 this year, the travel period began in mid-January and will stretch on until the end of February. If you live outside China, you may wonder what causes this sudden burst of travel mania.

Coming home

It’s time to go home and visit the family. For hundreds of millions of Chinese who live away from their parents, husbands, wives and even children, this is the once-a-year occasion to be together. Bearing gifts purchased from savings or the annual New Year’s bonus and expecting the warmth of a family meal, office workers, students, farm labourers, taxi drivers, sales assistants and factory workers travel thousands of kilometres in trains, planes and buses.

The more affluent, on the other hand, either have their parents over for the celebration, or head out overseas. They see their parents several times a year, so why be part of the crush?

Braving the cold outside Shanghai Railway Station (Shanghai Daily)

Planes, trains and snowstorms

An average of 2,265 trains per day will hit the rails during the peak travel period. Close to 300 trains will be added to regular schedules to carry a record 230 million passengers. Air China is increasing capacity by nearly 12 percent over their usual non-holiday routes, scheduling 7.2 million seats on 40,000 flights.

Getting a seat on any of those trains or flights requires tenacity, luck, and staying awake. Tickets on trains get sold out within a few minutes of the booking counter opening every morning. Travellers must queue up the night before – which in December or January can mean braving sub-zero temperatures.

Even if you have a ticket, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get home. The weather is at its worst this time of the year (as I write this, snow is coming down heavily in Shanghai). Two years ago, snowstorms blocked railroads, highways and airports for a full week, and many just couldn’t make it to their destination.

Rewards, restraint and opportunists

No matter how high the odds might be stacked against travellers, it’s bonanza time for China’s travel industry. Yet, an abiding sense of responsibility ensures that they do not overcharge their customers. They dare not; if they did, they’d attract the wrath of both the customers and the government.

In fact, Air China is offering an 80 percent discount to workers going home for the holiday, hoping to fill every one of those seats by making their pricing almost at par with trains.

There are other times in the year when China’s travel industry is free to raise fares and tariffs: the two “Golden Weeks” in May and October when Chinese travel fever picks up again.

But with demand running so high this becomes a great opportunity for scalpers who buy up tickets and resell them to desperate travellers at sometimes exorbitant prices. Every year the authorities crack down, yet the profit-taking is so high that the scalpers keep coming back.

Railway police officers in southwestern Sichuan province sweep snow off the tracks (Shanghai Daily)

The price of escape

It’s a slightly different story if you want to travel overseas. Most expatriates head home or (if they’ve taken their annual holiday during Christmas and New Year) toward the beaches of South East Asia. Destinations such as Bali, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia vie with each other to attract this segment, and this is when the travel rates are jacked up.

So where am I heading off to, you might ask? To the warmer climes of Dubai with my family, where the Dubai Shopping Festival beckons. It’s just that we must take a slightly circuitous route: drive to the airport in Hangzhou from Shanghai, fly to Beijing and then on to Dubai. Inexplicably, flights from Shanghai are 50 percent more expensive!

While behaving responsibly toward the masses, the airline industry has no qualms about jacking up prices for the wealthier classes and expatriates like me.